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The Classroom Crucible: What Really Works, What Doesn't, and Why.

Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning. Jacques Barzun. University of Chicago Press, $24.95. The Classroom Crucible: What Really Works, What Doesn't, and Why. Edward Pauly. Basic, $22.95. Twenty years after my first long day as a teacher, I am convinced that the essence of teaching is not logic, not skill; the essence of teaching is moral action. And if the experts who would tell teachers what to do cannot figure out a way to test for the real qualities of teacherliness-for humor, for depth of knowledge, for compassion, for tolerance, for ambiguity, for steel resolve-then I would invite them to shut up.

And them, in this case, means Jacques Barzun. His Begin Here is billed as a "practical, positive program for better schools," but it amounts to a crotchety collection of short polemics that reveals nothing so much as how out-of-touch Barzun is with classroom realities. Complaining that "during the last 50 years, nearly everything done in school has tended toward the discontinuous, the incoherent, the jiggly," Barzun seems to be typical of so many of our governors, corporate executives, newspaper editors, secretaries of education, and everybody's Aunt Mabel in insisting that his own graduation signaled the end of the golden age of education; school standards have been declining ever since. Barzun bolsters this contention with a broad swipe at everything from computer spell checkers to sex education.

My favorite part of the book is his "eyewitness account" of a seventh-grade history class. Barzun carps that history is not well served by such varied activity as role-playing, small-group discussions, or trips to national monuments. To Barzun, classroom teamwork is a "cowardly evasion." Insisting that "the whole class should attend to the same thing," Barzun would have seventh graders read Prescott's Cotiquest of Mexico. Each student could then write a precis. Students writing the best precis would read them aloud to their classmates. I guess it's not surprising that a man who dismisses all children's books and magazines except Cricket as just "a step up from . . . comic books" would want 12-year-olds to read Prescott, but I wonder how many times he's tried out this ideal lesson plan with real 12-year-olds. Being locked up in a room with 25 seventh graders and a stack of Conquest of Mexicos is as good a definition of hell as I've heard.

Barzun supports his contention that child psychology and specific teaching methods are pretty much worthless by pointing out that millions of mothers without special training have taught their infants to read and write. Indeed. In contrast, Edward Pauly is not so quick to dismiss the complexities of a teacher's craft. Drawing on many conversations with teachers as well as extensive research, he concludes that the teacher can't be separated from the taught, that teaching and learning are intertwined in complex ways-a notion that rarely occurs to outside advisers.

In Pauly's words, "The value of a teacher's experience is not contained in a bagful of techniques that can be applied in the same way in every classroom but in an understanding of the process of adjusting to each new group of students." Too many blue-ribbon panels on excellence in the schools offer nothing more than a bagful of prescriptions, a sort of Lydia Pinkham general cure-all. In contrast, Pauly spends a lot of time talking about how schools might adjust individual classroom dynamics to better meet the specific needs of both teachers and children; he also has a section on how parents can directly and powerfully influence the quality of their children's education. I'm not convinced that all his proposals are practical-shifting troublesome kids from classroom to classroom, for example-but I applaud his microcosmic approach to educational matters. I applaud his recognition that you can't talk about education in the school without talking about specific teachers and specific children in specific schools.

Pauly puts a positive spin on the lack of predictability in the classroom; "Pluralistic policies give every classroom a chance to succeed." He insists that the central question about schools should not be "why doesn't anything work?" but "why do some classrooms succeed while others in the same school don't?" This is a profoundly different question. A harder question too-one Barzun doesn't try to answer.

Although acknowledging that teaching presents "a set of difficulties," Barzun insists "there is no mystery" to teaching. I disagree. Knowing the material and having a passion to communicate it are critical to good teaching. But 20 years in classrooms have convinced me that what it takes to make a good teacher also has a lot to do with mystery.

Sound messy? You bet. Only outside experts ever claim that teaching is a neat and tidy business. When Edward Abbey died last year, I knew I had lost a friend, someone who got closer to what I'm about as a teacher than any number of ivory tower sages. In his words, "A permissive society? What else? I love America because it is a confused, chaotic mess, and I hope we can keep it this way. A permissive society is a free society, the open society. The best cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy." I feel the same way about classrooms.
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Author:Ohanian, Susan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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